Friday, 31 May 2019

Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Writing about The Nun's Story (Fred Zinnemann 1959) recently reminded me of Laura Mulvey's article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and how incompatible the two are, the film and the article. Mulvey's article denies the possibility of such a film, so I decided to return to Mulvey's piece and discuss it here. Her article is important as it is probably the most read and cited article in the history of film studies. In the big anthologies about film theory, Mulvey's text is one of the very few that appears in all I have seen. Likewise, it is the only one that has been mandatory reading for all film students at all the universities with which I have been associated in some form.

This is perplexing because it is not a good text and its flaws are obvious. While it has been criticised from a few angles ever since it was published, usually from within a psychoanalytic frame-work (such as Joan Copjec, Gaylyn Studlar, Carol J. Clover, Richard Allen and Todd McGowan) or from philosophers like Noël Carroll, it is still treated as a serious and important work of film theory even though there is nothing in the text that can justify this. Mulvey herself has moved beyond it and has on occasions expressed her ambivalence about its canonical place within film studies. In 1989, in the introduction to the book Visual and Other Pleasures, she wrote this about her article: "Written in 1973, polemically and without regard for context and nuances of argument, published in 1975, after many references and quotations in the following year, it has acquired a balloon-like, free-floating quality." and that is one of several times she has commented on it in similar ways. Mulvey is more critical of her own article than many other scholars who believe it is a great piece of scholarly insight into how films and humans function. It is not, and it was never Mulvey's intention for it to be, so while I will be using expressions like "Mulvey says" or "Mulvey's argument" it is not to criticise her per se today, as she has moved beyond the article, but just the article when it was written. But let me go through it step by step, and point out what I consider are its major flaws.


Particularly important for Mulvey is Jacques Lacan and his "mirror stage" or "mirror phase". Lacan's belief (which he had taken from the psychologist Henri Wallon) is usually summarised something like this: children's perception of themselves as individuals is formed when, somewhere between the age of six and 18 months, they for the first time see themselves in the mirror, but that what they see is an idealised version of themselves. This is how Mulvey portrays it but when her article was published, Lacan had reconsidered the theory. It was not specifically a mirror that had to be involved and he was emphasising that it was not a decisive moment, not a formulation of an ego, but part of a process. So Mulvey's version of Lacan is not exactly right, or at least incomplete. This is perhaps understandable as Lacanians have argued for decades over the exact meaning of the mirror phase, and brief summaries of it are usually different from one another in some significant way. What she primarily takes from the idea of the mirror stage is the concept of identification with an ideal. She argues that when the audience see a film they identify with the male main character and see him as an idealised version of themselves. But her basic argument is a giant leap of faith. Lacan claims (according to her) that all children have a mirror experience and therefore, Mulvey claims, the members of the audience identify with the male lead and through his actions overcome their own castration anxiety. Even if Lacan's original theory had been correct though there is nothing similar between a mirror image of yourself and a film. As an example, the point of the mirror stage in Mulvey's telling is that the child does recognise the image as itself. This is not what we do when watching a film; we do not think "That is me." when we see the face of Tom Cruise on the screen as we do when we see the face of ourselves in the mirror. Further, there is no reason to assume that every audience member would react the same way. Mulvey's assumption that all audience members identify with the same character in a given film is one of the things that many have criticised her for.

Another obvious flaw is that the theory, although she speaks of Hollywood as a whole, only works when there is a male lead. Sometimes there is none, sometimes there are more than one. Do we identify with each lead equally much or subconsciously choose one, so some identify with Laurel and others with Hardy? In many thrillers the male lead is a criminal or murderer or in one way or another a bad character, and the female lead is a victim of his aggressions. The purpose of such films is for the audience to be scared and concerned for the health and well-being of the woman, but if we all identified with the man we would not be worried about the woman. If we, according to Mulvey's argument, identified with the man we would presumably hope that he (us) managed to kill the woman. But we do not. A small minority might, but not the average person.

milk glass in Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock 1941)

Another question is what in the first place it means to identify with a character and to what extent we do that. When I watch a James Bond film I do not identify with Bond, partly because we have nothing in common. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks 1940) is one of my favourite films but I do not identify with any of the characters there, and I would say that this is true for most films. When I identify with anything it is primarily with specific feelings or reactions in specific situations, regardless of the gender of the character (or even species, such as the terrified dog in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1949)). I do not think I am alone in this.

mirrors in The Little Foxes (William Wyler 1941)

Mulvey writes about Freudian ideas such as penis envy (according to Mulvey, women have a "desire to possess a penis"), castration complex and other related concepts, but those concepts are dubious at best, are impossible to prove, have been criticised ever since Freud first wrote about them and are rarely taken seriously today. Freud's theory, which Mulvey seems to agree with, was that these concepts were common to all humans at all times throughout history, even though Freud's empirical material consisted of a few people in fin de siècle Vienna and not a representative sample of humanity as a whole.

Mulvey combines her psychoanalysis with apparatus theory, based around the idea that the way we watch films and the way films are made, make the audience especially susceptible to their sexist and ideological message. We, the claim is, sit in the dark, cut off from the real world and instead come to believe that the world of the film is the real world, due to the film's use of realism and invisible editing ("conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world"). This is as unsatisfying and peculiar as the psychoanalysis. For one thing, most people do not experience film by watching it in a dark movie theatre. They watch films at home. This was true in the 1970s and remains true today. We also watch films outdoors or on the in-flight entertainment system. Even when people go to the cinema it is to experience the film in a variety of ways. The quiet and dark movie theatre setting on which apparatus theory is based is just one way of many of watching a film in the cinema, from the habit of having the audience come and go at will, and not see a film from beginning to end, to singalong experiences of musicals. Cinema-going habits vary between different eras and between different cultures, and Mulvey and apparatus theory in general ignore this. This alone makes the theory unsustainable.

If invisible editing and the pretence of realism are inherently suspect you would expect neorealism and the films of Ken Loach to be among the main targets of apparatus theory rather than Hollywood at large, since a lot of Hollywood cinema is extravagant escapism and adventures which do not aim for realism. Two other popular kinds of films from the era Mulvey is primarily focused on are musicals and film noir and they frequently foreground stylistic achievements and artificiality. The idea that Hollywood films as a rule rely on invisible editing is also contradicted by the evidence. Some films try to keep the editing smooth and unnoticeable (even though almost any given film have cuts and edits that are highly visible) and others do not. Alfred Hitchcock, one of Mulvey's examples, is fond of shock editing and artificiality, although on a different level than Mulvey's other main example, Josef von Sternberg, whose films are all about form; the antithesis to the realism Mulvey claims is an essential part of the problem with Hollywood. This is an example of the incoherence of her arguments.


While Mulvey's article is theory-dense, she did not have to spend so much time on Freud and Lacan. Pointing out sexism in cinema is perfectly possible without invoking castration anxiety or a mirror stage. The sexism is real and obvious (just look at Bus Stop (Joshua Logan 1956)), and in need of no theory to highlight. Yet her arguments about the way men and women are depicted in films are weak too, whatever your views are of Freud and Lacan.

She makes several general statements about the differences between men and women on films, and key is how the man has the look and the woman is being looked at, how the man controls the gaze, and how the woman is always sexualised. She quotes Budd Boetticher saying that in herself, the woman has not meaning for the film, only as an instigator. This might be true for some of Boetticher's own films which are about a man avenging the death of his wife, but it is not a general truth for cinema at large. It never has been. Having women as central characters that drive the narrative has been a constant factor since the early days of cinema. That is what I meant when I said that The Nun's Story and Mulvey's article are incompatible. It is probably more common to have male characters as the ones driving the narrative, rather than women, but far from always. Screwball comedies usually have one man and one woman in the lead, equally driving the narrative. Musicals, such as Meet Me in St Louis (Vincente Minnelli 1944), often have women as leading characters, and the men play second fiddle. But it is not only specific genres. A crime thriller like Appointment with Danger (Lewis Allen 1951) has a nun and a postal inspector as the crime-fighting team. (Films with nuns as central characters should present a problem for Mulvey.) The films of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The films of Doris Day, or Lucille Ball. But I will not go on any further, the list is long enough. You might counter that Mulvey is perhaps not talking about all of Hollywood cinema, that she is merely pointing at a certain kind of sexist cinema. But since she is using Lacan and apparatus theory, all-encompassing theories, and speaks of Hollywood cinema in singular, she does not leave any room for alternatives or minority cases. She is talking of the whole of Hollywood cinema "and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence" by which she seems to mean "the narrative fiction film."


At one point Mulvey says that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification." This is not true. Just think of singers such as Elvis Presley or Tom Jones. Cinema is filled with scenes of men looking at other men and women looking at men in a sexualised way. When male film stars were referred to as hunks and beefcakes, it was because they were objectified and the beauty of their bodies underlined. That is self-evident and Mulvey's apparently belief is belied by film history and audiences. I am sure that she was aware of women looking at William Holden or Burt Lancaster with lust in their eyes. Some genres were particularly good at providing eye candy for those who like to look at the male body, such as biblical epics and sword-and-sandals films. There is a delicious moment in Esther and the King (Raoul Walsh 1960), when Esther (played by Joan Collins) and some ladies come across the king, dressed only in little more than a loincloth, and they gasp with delight at the sight of his strong, sweaty body. But it is not genre-specific. In The More the Merrier (George Stevens 1944) Joel McCrea's character is a young and good-looking man in New York when most young and good-looking men are away overseas fighting the war, so the women stare at him and undress him with their eyes. In one scene he undresses himself and goes sunbathing in a pair of shorts. In Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen 1935), another romantic comedy, Fred MacMurray, the male lead, is half-naked most of the film unlike Carole Lombard, the female lead, who is properly dressed.

William Holden in Picnic (Joshua Logan 1955)

From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann 1953)

We can accept Mulvey's argument and settle for the idea that when the audience see Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach, all of them look at Kerr and nobody look at Lancaster. Or we can question whether this is plausible. I think it is not, and that her general arguments about men and women on films, and how they are viewed, are inaccurate. (There is also a Queer subtext in From Here to Eternity, which sometimes moves from subtext to text; yet another complication in Hollywood cinema that Mulvey cannot acknowledge.)

Burt Reynolds in Cosmopolitan, 1972

What about when she speaks of specific films? There too she is sometimes objectively wrong and sometimes interpret what is happening in a peculiar way. She mentions eight films by name in her article: Morocco (Josef von Sternberg 1930), Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg 1931), Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks 1939), To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks 1944), Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock 1954), The River of No Return (Otto Preminger 1954), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958) and Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock 1958). Of those she claims that in the two films by Hawks, the woman is initially a show girl, "isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised", but as the film progresses she becomes the property of the man and stops appearing in front of others. This is not what happens in the films. Bonnie in Only Angels Have Wings performs once, in the beginning, but this is a group performance with most of the main characters including the male lead, Geoff, and through this performance she is initiated into the group. She and Geoff become a couple (sort of) in the end of the film, but she does not change in appearance or become de-glamourized. She was never put on display or sexualised in the first place, and she never becomes his property. (An offensive idea.) But the most important thing is that in the film Bonnie is the audience's surrogate. She arrives at Barranca in the opening sequence, a stranger to this place where all the others know each other, and we follow her. The other characters spend the beginning of the film explaining to her (and us) who is who and what they do and why. If the audience identify with anyone in the film it is probably with her. Mulvey's argumentation has very little to do with what happens in the film.

Slim in To Have and Have Not does not change in appearance or character either during the film and it is after she has fallen in love with Steve that she starts to perform, so the opposite of what Mulvey claims. It is also more a case of her chasing him, being the active one and he more passive. This matters because if what Mulvey claims is happening in Hawks's two films is meant to prove her theory, such as it is, then it suggests that if the opposite happens it would disprove her theory, and it is the opposite that happens.

To Have and Have Not

About Rear Window, Mulvey says that Lisa has "an obsessive interest in dress and style," is "a passive image of visual perfection" and that she is saved in the end by Jeff. It is puzzling that she would call Lisa "a passive image" because she clearly is not. She is the most active character in the film, and supremely confident and driven. She works in fashion but is, among other things, organising photo sessions, doing fund-raising and having meetings. So neither professionally or privately can you reasonably describe Lisa is passive, and while it is possible that Jeff thinks her interest in dress and style is obsessive, there is no indication that Hitchcock, or the film, takes this view. According to Mulvey, it is when Jeff sees Lisa being threatened by another man that his desire for her is aroused. But this is getting things backwards. Jeff is dismissive of Lisa at first, when he considers her just as "a passive image of visual perfection" as Mulvey claims she is. But it is when he understands that she is intelligent, brave and resourceful that his love for her grows and takes charge of him. This is one of the major themes of the film, that Jeff is taught a lesson, he realises that he had the wrong idea of her. He is wrong about most women. He might have a male gaze but he has at first little understanding of what he sees.

Concerning Vertigo, Marnie and the Sternberg films, it is not entirely clear whether Mulvey's discussions of them strengthen or weaken her general argument. About von Sternberg's films she makes this observation: "the most important absence is that of the controlling male gaze" and this is confusing considering her article is primarily famous for its introduction of the concept of the male gaze and its ubiquitousness within Hollywood cinema. But in one of her two prime case studies it does not appear. Does she think that von Sternberg's films are the only exception to the rule, and should not this have been emphasised if they were?

What Mulvey says about Vertigo is not much more than a plot summary, so she is not uncovering something hidden beneath but only follows Hitchcock, who is upfront with what he is doing and what the film is about. Hitchcock might be said to make arguments that are similar to Mulvey's, which is perhaps why she is not criticising the film but merely describing it. She is not actually doing any kind of analysis. But she is calling James Stewart's character "a hero" and I do not think many would agree with her about that. Mulvey says about the end that "His curiosity wins through and she is punished." but that is incomplete. To call him "curious" is questionable and he too is punished. It would be a rare audience to come away from the film thinking that Stewart is a hero who has won. And here, like in Rear Window, he might have the gaze but he does not understand what he sees. In Rear Window he is also punished, but the woman, Lisa, is not. In the end it is she who gets what she wanted.

It is worth asking why, in an article which partly aims to expose the male gaze, Mulvey has chosen to focus on von Sternberg and Hitchcock of all filmmakers since within von Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich there is no such gaze while the Hitchcock's films she brings up are explicitly about that gaze, from a critical perspective. You do not need psychoanalytic theory to "discover" something that the characters are already explicitly discussing in the films. It is not even the subtext. It should be added that there is more than one woman in both Vertigo and Rear Window, but their presence go unacknowledged by Mulvey despite their importance for the films and their narratives. They too look. You could argue that the male gaze in these films is exposed by Hitchcock, shown to be incomplete and untrustworthy, and that it is women who see more clearly.

Stella and Jeff gazing in Rear Window

Mulvey ends the article with a call for a new cinema, one that is against giving pleasure, but it is unclear to what end. Why make films at all? Will her new counter-cinema make the older films disappear? Would it not be better, for example, to make narrative feature films which give women as much pleasure as films previously, according to Mulvey, could only give the men? And what about already existing alternatives to Hollywood. If there was a need for a whole new kind of cinema it would seem to suggest that Chantal Akerman was not good enough for Mulvey, nor were Agnès Varda, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Loden or Mai Zetterling to mention some of her contemporaries. In any event, the form in which a film is made is not what decides whether it is sexist or not. Avant-garde and art cinema are frequently sexist, regardless of how much they break the fourth wall or draw attention to themselves as constructs, just as there are many mainstream Hollywood films from the classical era that are not sexist. And quite a lot of them draw attention to their form, and break the fourth wall.


Does "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" have no value at all? It does, as an example of a historical moment in film theory. But that is all. Almost all her examples are muddled and frequently disprove her arguments. As a theory about films and about humans the article is too flawed, incoherent and factually wrong, to be of any use. The best way of looking at it is as a statement within the movement of which she was a part, cinephiles with an auteurist emphasis and with a connection with Edinburgh International Film Festival and the British Film Institute. This probably explains why her examples are not contemporary with the time of writing, but much older. The films she is talking about are the films that were particularly popular among her friends and associates, and her piece was aimed at that crowd, many of whom would, like Mulvey, be writing in Screen. It was not aimed to be on the mandatory reading lists for students across the world in 2019. I think treating it like something other than what it is, is doing a disservice to students and to Mulvey.

For two examples of later pieces by Mulvey that are related to "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" but much better are "Thoughts on the Young Modern Woman of the 1920s and Feminist Film Theory" from 2009, to be found in the second edition of Visual and Other Pleasures, and "Pandora's Box: Topographies of Curiosity," to be found in Fetishism and Curiosity from 2006, where she talks about the woman's gaze in for example Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960).

A Ngram search on Google books for the frequency of the term "castration anxiety" results in a bell curve, which says something about how Mulvey's article really was of the moment.

Mulvey's article is sometimes called the first example of feminist film theory and criticism but it was not. Naomi Wise "The Hawksian Woman" (1971), Claire Johnston's "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema (1973) and Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape (1974) are three contemporary examples.

Some of the anthologies I referred to above: 
Movies and Methods Volume II (1985), edited by Bill Nichols
Film and Theory: An Anthology (2000), edited by Robert Stam and Toby Miller
Film Theory and Criticism - Introductory Readings (2009, 7th Edition), edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen
Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (2011), edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, with Meta Mazaj

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell 2006)

Friday, 17 May 2019

Women who wrote Westerns

It is a well-known fact that few women have become directors, that it has overwhelmingly been something for men, that for decades the number of directors who were women could be counted almost on the fingers of your hand. That began to change in the 1970s, and while there are still more men than women on average, things are nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1930s to the 1960s. However, there were many women directors (and even more writers) in the early days of cinema, the early silent period. The two most well-known are Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché, and there were many others beside them, in Hollywood and across the world. But the focus for this article is Hollywood. There, Universal Pictures, to name just one studio, had up to nine women under contract as directors in the 1910s. Weber was one of them before she started her own studio. Some were actresses who either also began directing, or had such control over their films that whoever was the director had less say than the star. But then they all disappeared when sound came, with the exception of Dorothy Arzner. That disappearance is an important story. But just because women disappeared as directors does not mean that women disappeared from filmmaking.

Those who follow my writing and my research knows that two American filmmaker I have paid particular attention to are George Sherman and Henry Hathaway. There are many reasons for this, besides me liking their films, and one is that few others have paid much attention to them, especially not to Sherman, so whatever I found out about them I had to do on my own. One thing I noticed was that several of their Westerns were written by women. I did not go any further with it at the time, as my focus was on the directors, but it was obvious that I needed to come back to that. Now I have. Amazingly, hundreds of Westerns during the decades in which they reigned (1930s to the 1960s) were written by women. Women such as Elizabeth Beecher, Adele Buffington, Elizabeth Burbridge, Olive Cooper, Karen DeWolf, Frances Guihan, Patricia Harper, Lillie Hayward, Frances Kavanaugh, Doris Schroeder, Luci Ward, Marguerite Roberts and Leigh Brackett. Almost all these women are unknown today, and they were unknown beyond their peers when they were active too. In this they are like most men who were "only" writers and never became directors. Film history is much like marketing in that respect, almost all attention is given to stars and to directors, with some notable exceptions. This is not unreasonable, directors and stars may be considered the most influential people on set and are the people most likely to shape films and filmmaking, and also those that are most visible for the audience at large. But they are not alone on set and among these other creative individuals you can find many women. Even in Westerns.

Scholars, critics and historians usually try to describe any given genre in a precise way, with definitions that are said to be true for the genre as a whole, but invariably it never is. Most, maybe all, genres are too large and unruly, contain too many films and too many variations for you to be able to say anything about them in general other than the most vague and general statements, something tautologous such as "musicals are films with musical numbers in them". This is certainly the case with Westerns too, of which thousands have been made for over a hundred years, many of which are not even set in the West. Westerns are traditionally considered the height of masculinity, the most male-focused genre, and for this reason alone it is of interest that so many of those who wrote them were women. But it is also worth pointing out that histories and theories about the Western are focused on a small sample-pack, and one that primarily consists of the known masterpieces and classics. They vary a lot among themselves, but they are also in the minority among the large number of Westerns that were made each year. Most of these have never entered the canon and are rarely discussed or acknowledged. But for the average viewer in the 1930s and possible in the 1940s too, these now forgotten films were most likely the kind of Western they would watch, and these would often be written by one or several women. Many of these Westerns were part of series, such as films about the Three Mesquiteers, or the Rough Riders, or Gene Autry's Singing Cowboy, which has also helped ensure that they are almost invisible for critics and historians today.

With so many writers and so many films it will of course not be possible to say more than the bare minimum in a piece such as this one, a book is needed to cover the subject. I know that Luci Ward co-wrote Black Bart, Highwayman (George Sherman 1948) and Karen DeWolf wrote Silver Lode (Allan Dwan 1954) and both films are very interesting, and very good, and on their merits alone I would like to know more about Ward and DeWolf. Leigh Brackett is the most famous one, especially for her partnership with Howard Hawks, writing several of his best films, alone or in collaboration. She is also famous for writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner 1980). Here is some information about a few of the less famous ones:

Yvonne De Carlo as Lola Montez in Black Bart

Adele Buffington was probably the most influential of them since she was one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild and later an anti-communist hunter as aggressive as senator Joe McCarthy. Between 1919 and 1958 she wrote around 150 different films, sometimes under pseudonyms like Jesse Bowers and Colt Remington. She was born in 1900 and worked as an usher for a while before selling her first script in 1919. She was then discovered by Thomas H. Ince, one of the most highly regarded filmmakers at the time, and wrote for him. She was not just writing Westerns, West of Singapore (1933) for example (co-written with Elizabeth Meehan) is set on a ship sailing the waters of where you would expect from the title, and The Keeper of the Bees (1935) is about a soldier returning from the trenches of World War 1, suffering from what is today known as PTSD. But mainly her films were stand-alone Westerns or series such as the films about the U.S. Marshal Nevada Jack McKenzie.

Betty Burbridge was equally prolific and also primarily a Western writer. She wrote some of the films about the Three Mesquiteers and she also wrote many of Gene Autry's films. Her career in film began as an actor, under her full name Elizabeth Burbridge, and in 1917 she began writing scripts. She also had a newspaper column under the pen-name Prudence Penny Jr. When TV had its major breakthrough in the 1950s she transitioned, with Gene Autry, to that format, writing for a handful of Western shows before she retired.

Gene Autry, with whom Burbridge was associated, was one the of the biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s, and his films among the most popular each year. The audience for their films is said to be evenly balanced between men and women, and women did play important parts in them as self-sufficient characters. I am curious about films such as Colorado Sunset (George Sherman 1939), written by Burbridge, Luci Ward and two men, in which the women of the town seem to be in control of things.

Frances Kavanaugh was sometimes referred to as "Cowgirl of the Typewriter". She was born in Texas and lived her early life on the ranch. She wrote many films for Monogram Pictures, and she also helped create the popular hero Cheyenne Davis, aka "Lash" LaRue, dressed in black and carrying a bullwhip. (He was an inspiration for Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford was allegedly trained by Alfred LaRue). She wrote some 35 scripts, and almost all the films she wrote were directed by Robert Emmet Tansey.

Lillie Hayward did, unlike the three mentioned above, combined writing B-Westerns with writing more prestigious films, or at least A-films, including the great noir Western Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise 1948), one of Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films, My Friend Flicka (Harold D. Schuster 1943), and a fine Western directed by Michael Curtiz, The Proud Rebel (1958). At the end of her career she wrote for Disney. She wrote some 80 scripts.

Marguerite Roberts was also a writer of more prestigious films. She was also something of the antithesis to Buffington, as Roberts was a victim of the anti-communism scandal and became one of the blacklisted. She had joined her husband in the American communist party in 1949, when the party was Stalinist, but it seems Roberts was not a revolutionary herself. But she had a progressive touch and wrote Escape (Mervyn LeRoy 1940), one of the few anti-Nazi films made before 1941. She also wrote several Westerns, such as Henry Hathaway's three last ones: 5 Card Stud (1968), True Grit (1969) and Shoot Out (1971). She wrote some 35 scripts.

The argument here is not that women only wrote Westerns; the argument is that it is an interesting fact that so many Westerns were written by women. I wonder if this was the only genre where such a large proportion were written by women. Another argument, which I frequently make, is that even with Hollywood filmmaking, the most heavily researched area of film history, we have still so much to learn and explore. These women and these films do by themselves undermine a lot of conventional history about Hollywood, genres and gender.

A final caveat. Credits for screenwriting are often unreliable. Take The Proud Rebel for example. It was based on a story by James Edward Grant, and written by Joseph Petracca and Lillie Hayward. But to whom should we credit the film? All of them? None of them, in case Curtiz was primarily responsible for the script as well as the direction. Maybe Petracca wrote more or less all of it, and Hayward is credited because Curtiz brought her along as a script doctor (they had worked together before). Or maybe Hayward wrote most of it. I have no idea.

When I said "Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films" above I meant it. He produced or initiated several similar films, such as My Friend Flicka, partly inspired by his love of horses. One fine example is Home in Indiana (Henry Hathaway 1944).

There should be a blu-ray double-feature of Ophüls's Lola Montès (1955) and Black Bart.

While I have found no books about the topic of this article, here are related ones that were useful:

Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood by Lizzie Francke

The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors by Anthony Slide

Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight

Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, edited by Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson

And Columbia University's website Women Film Pioneers Project:

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Nun's Story (1959)

In an earlier post about late style and last films I mentioned Fred Zinnemann and The Nun’s Story (1959). Since it is such an exceptional film I want to discuss it more.

It is about Gabrielle van der Mal, a Belgian woman who in 1930 decides to enter a convent and to try to become a nun. The process of being introduced into the life of the convent, of becoming a nun, is the focus of the first section of the film. The film begins with her saying goodbye to her siblings and then her father drives her to the convent. After they too have said goodbye she, together with several other young women, are taken through a door which is then locked behind them. They have now moved from a secular space to a religious space, a space which is almost treated as if it was a prison. From the closing of that door, which happens eleven minutes into the film, follows 35 minutes of all the procedures that a woman has to go through in order to become a nun. First they change clothes, then there is an introductory prayer and then the schooling begins. Learning how to be silent and use specific signs in order to communicate, learning obedience to the bell, how to write down imperfections, learning how to achieve complete detachment from their former life, learning how to walk, getting the hair cut, and moving from one set of clothes to another, as the women go from postulate to novice and from novice to nun. Finally, after several years, Gabrielle van der Mal has moved through all of these stages and is welcomed into the congregation and given her name as a nun, Sister Luke. Then the Reverend Mother tells her that ‘Tomorrow you will leave for the School of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp.’ and by that scene the first part of the film is over, around one third of the length of the film. (The second part is about her life as a nun, first in Belgium and then in the Congo, filmed on location and those locations include an actual leper colony.)

This first part, which is concentrated on procedure, is also to a large extent silent. There is hardly any dialogue, and the music come only in a few brief spurts. It is not completely impersonal; on a few occasions it is shown how Gabrielle fails to follow the rules. She might be late, or walk too fast, or being unwilling to leave a patient when the bell tolls, even though she must. So the interior struggle which is at core of the film is there from the start. But in this first part it is not the focus, it is the rituals themselves that are in focus.

This is also true for the very last sequence of the film, in which Sister Luke returns to being Gabrielle van der Mal. She has asked to be allowed to quit and permission has been granted. In the end she walks into a room with Reverend Mother and a representative from the Archbishop. She is asked to sign a document (three copies of it) and then she is to walk into an empty room where her old clothes are. She changes clothes, removes her religious symbols and insignia and the she rings on a bell. A door opens and she walks out of the door and away. There is no music and the camera dispassionately observes as she walks further and further away from the door, moving from the religious space back into the secular. She eventually turns right, after a slight hesitation, and the words ‘The End’ appears. It is a sequence, and ending, of rare perfection; emotionally and artistically.


To return to the first part of the film; it was not in the book the film is based on, written by Kathryn Hulme and based on the experiences of a friend of hers (Robert Anderson wrote the fine script), and neither is it something that enhances the telling of the story (which on a basic level is about a woman who becomes a nun and then finds it is too difficult and quits). Yet it is exactly this section, and later, similar ones, that makes the film what it is, and is what specifically signals that it is a film directed by Zinnemann. Gabrielle van der Mal has to make a profound decision, whether to be true to her conscience or to remain where she is and not cause any trouble, so that recurring theme of Zinnemann is present, but it is the style of which the film is told that is most explicitly Zinnemannian. The long sequence on the procedure by which one becomes a nun, before Sister Luke’s interior battle begins, is not for the sake of storytelling but for the sake of an investigation into the heart of the convent, and the rituals that the nuns perform. This is a key aspect of Zinnemann's art, wanting to know, and wanting to show, how something is done. It forms a link to his early documentaries. But the film could also be discussed as transcendental, in Paul Schrader's sense.

The Nun’s Story is the first film that is made in Zinnemann’s late style, in which the narrative moves slowly and is interspersed with contemplative images of trees, statues, clouds and such. That is a change from the more brisk and efficient style of storytelling that Zinnemann used earlier, but which had begun to loosen up over time. The Nun’s Story is 150 minutes, longer than any of his earlier films except Oklahoma! (1955), a musical which do not really count here as it is so different in many ways. These later films are longer and slower but not because they contain more information or events but because they are told in a different style, more contemplative; a style which from now on would be his usual one. This stage in Zinnemann's oeuvre is rarely discussed but it is one of the great treasures of world cinema.